Aaliyah Edwards' homecoming game at TMU extends connectivity of Canadian women's basketball

It was a taste of what could have been, and a glimpse at the future. UConn, the storied women’s college basketball team, played against the undefeated Toronto Metropolitan University in Toronto on Wednesday at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, where passion for the sport was on full display.

Kingston, Ont., native records 26-point double-double in UConn's rout of Bold

A women's basketball player holds her hands up to receive the ball.
Aaliyah Edwards of the UConn Huskies had 26 points and 10 rebounds in a 111-34 win over TMU in Toronto on Wednesday. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images/File)

It was a taste of what could have been, and a glimpse at the future.

UConn, the storied women's college basketball team, played against the undefeated Toronto Metropolitan University in Toronto on Wednesday at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, where passion for the sport was on full display.

There were the players: Aaliyah Edwards, the Huskies star from nearby Kingston, Ont., played in her homecoming game and piled up 26 points and 10 rebounds, just six years after she was in the crowd in the same arena for fellow Canadian Kia Nurse's homecoming game with UConn.

"It's kind of like I'm setting the path for somebody else to create their own destiny with their future. So it was kind of a surreal moment," Edwards said.

There were her opponents, the TMU Bold, coming out with fervour out after halftime despite a 68-9 deficit. The final score was 111-34.

WATCH | Edwards leads UConn over TMU:

Canada's Aaliyah Edwards shines on home soil as UConn defeats TMU

4 months ago
Duration 1:18
Kingston, Ont., native Aaliyah Edwards scores 26 points and grabs 10 rebounds as the Huskies beat the Bold 111-34 at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto.

"It's super special. I think for me, it's been really full circle," said TMU's Kaillie Hall, the Hamilton, Ont., native who was also a spectator at that 2017 game and who played both with and against Edwards growing up.

"Being a young girl and watching that happen and then actually being able to play in it and represent a university that I'm really proud to be a part of and a program that I'm really proud to be a part of, there's nothing like it."

There was Huskies alum Kia Nurse, the national-team star, WNBA guard and TSN commentator from Hamilton, Ont., roaming the sidelines in her grey UConn quarter-zip.

There was Halifax's Carly Clarke, the national-team assistant and head coach of TMU, who until Wednesday had yet to lose a game all season as the Bold sprinted to a 10-0 start.

"It takes a little bit of courage to play us when you're in Carly's situation, and I admire that," UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. "There's not a lot of people that would do it. … When you do something like this, I think you also send a message that you believe in your team, you believe in your players and you believe in the program you're building."

There was Victor Lapeña, the national-team head coach, sitting directly across from the TMU bench and chatting with Steve Baur, another assistant, throughout the game. Canada Basketball president Mike Bartlett joined them in the second half.

Boisterous atmosphere in Toronto

And then there were the fans. One girl said she wears No. 3 in her rec league because Edwards is her favourite player. The crowd cheered loudly when the Bold finally got on the board in the first quarter; it was nearly as boisterous whenever Edwards made a good play.

"I hear this all the time from kids: 'Hey coach, I was in the stands when so and so came up and played and it really impressed me,'" Auriemma, who's led the Huskies since 1985, said. "You don't know what kind of impact you're having on some little kid sitting there or some high school kid sitting there."

In October, the Toronto Star reported that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment had pulled out of bidding for a WNBA franchise — putting a sudden and startling halt to the momentum that had gained toward the idea after a sellout exhibition game last May.

Maybe it wouldn't have worked, and maybe MLSE showed savvy business sense in not ponying up the $50 million US expansion fee. But the UConn-TMU game was the latest evidence pointing in the opposite direction.

Edwards, a projected first-round pick in the WNBA draft next April, will soon become the fifth Canadian in the league. The 21-year-old was averaging over 30 minutes with 16 points and eight rebounds per game this season entering Wednesday's contest.

"When she plays the way she's played the last three or four games, she's an All-American player," Auriemma said. "Overall, she's a different player than she was the last couple years."

'There's some really good basketball in Canada'

She will likely make her second Olympic appearance next summer in Paris, though Canada still must get through a qualifier in Hungary in February in which she'll likely be unavailable. Canada failed to advance past the group stage at Tokyo 2020.

If the Canadians indeed make it through, Lapeña, Clarke, Edwards and Nurse will vie for team's first-ever podium appearance. It is a realistic goal, as the team is ranked fifth by FIBA and placed fourth at last year's World Cup.

WATCH | Edwards on her Canadian ties:

UConn basketball player Aaliyah Edwards on her Canadian support and inspiration

1 year ago
Duration 0:50
Aaliyah Edwards thanked her teammates from the Canadian women's national basketball team for helping her compete as a student-athlete for the UConn Huskies and contend for a U.S. collegiate championship.

Bartlett has spoken of basketball galvanizing Canadians and producing a signature moment in Paris — much like the women's soccer team in 2012.

"I hope this [game] also exposed, despite the score, that there's some really good basketball in Canada," Clarke said.

If it is the women's team creating that moment, one can only wonder about the impact — both immediate and long-lasting — that will be left on the sport in Canada. Maybe it even forces MLSE to reconsider its stance.

In the meantime, the growth at the root level is palpable, with the atmosphere in Toronto on Wednesday night showcasing immense support for women's basketball in Canada and helping to extend the connective fabric of the sport.

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